Is political muscle keeping the Raub Australian Gold Mining Company 'safe' from claims of pollution and environmental destruction?
While most children get to frolic in the precipitation, here in this village, they are rushed indoors at the slightest drizzle because the rain brings with it dangerous chemicals vapours which emanate from the nearby Raub Australian Gold Mining (RAGM) company.
According to Hue Fui How, a 56-year-old lifetime resident of Kampung Bukit Koman, it’s not uncommon to see people “rushing about helter-skelter” the moment the sky is overcast.
“They will hurriedly bring in the laundry and shut themselves indoors. We are so afraid of being exposed to it [chemical vapours] because it flares up existing skin conditions, our eyes get red and itchy, and our lungs fight to breathe.
“I used to think that this was a great place to retire. A good place for my wife and me to spend our twilight years.
“I used to imagine our children and grandchildren looking forward to visiting us as a respite from our hectic city life.
“But now, when I ask them, ‘When are you coming?’ They just…” he trailed off with a cynical laugh and a deep shrug of the shoulders.
For over three years now, the residents of Kampung Bukit Koman, represented by the Pahang Raub Ban Cyanide Gold Mining Committee (JBMPC), have been complaining of increasing health concerns since RAGM, a gold mine and gold extracting facility, started operations in 2009.
In January 2010, the committee sent a memorandum to all the authorities concerned and all the lawmakers at both state and federal levels.
They were seeking intervention to solve the problems that have been literally plaguing the village.
To date, they have received no satisfactory follow-ups or responses.
Authorities in denial
Hue said that in 2011, the Raub Health Department paid a visit to Kampung Bukit Koman and collected urine and hair samples from fewer than 50 residents.
“They told us that these samples will be sent to Australia but we have heard nothing since then. State assemblyman Choong Siew Onn (Tras) wrote a letter to the Health Department inquiring about the results but they denied that they had taken any samples.
“Everyone who is supposed to be accountable for this is in denial,” he added.
FMT placed a call to RAGM last week and was informed by an employee who declined to be named that they were not aware of the situation.
When asked if RAGM had a website for further information, the employee offered that it was under construction. When pushed for more information, she said that information about RAGM can be had by looking up www.peninsulargold.com.
A call made to the phone number given on the website elicited no further information from an employee who only gave his his name as Liew.
Less than enthusiastic about receiving a call from the media, he reluctantly and curtly said: “The only information I can give you is that Peninsular Gold is the holding company for RAGM,” before ending the call abruptly.
RAGM, however, isn’t an Australian company. It is a Malaysian company that is wholly owned by Peninsular Gold Litd. Peninsular Gold Ltd is listed in the London Stock Exchange and registered in Jersey, a semi-autonomous region dubiously known as a tax haven.
“Many of Raub’s inhabitants are descended from the historic miners of the area, and Peninsular’s activities are providing the impetus for a marked resurgence in the town’s fortunes.”
To this, Hue who is also the JBMPC secretary, retorted: “Most of the workers we have seen are foreign nationals. And even when they do come up into the village to buy certain essentials or food, they don’t speak with us. In fact, you won’t see them sitting around the coffeeshops as they always pack their food and drinks.”
Lies on website
Additionally, the website also boasts the following: “Peninsular Gold is constantly mindful of the local community and of the environment, and goes to great lengths to work in harmony with both.
“RAGM must comply with conditions set under Mining Licence and by the Department of Environment.
“Comprehensive baseline studies have been completed which include monitoring of noise levels, ground and surface water as well as air quality.
“The project has been designed to minimise the catchment area of plant and tailings storage facility.
“All the process solution is recycled, the process water circuit is designed for zero discharge, the water collected on site is used as process make up water, the site run off passes through maturation ponds which act as biological filters before passing into the stream.
“The discharge water subject to stringent conditions stipulated by the authorities.”
But the Bukit Koman residents believe no local environment impact studies were ever done.
In March 2012, the committee once again conveyed their demands to the relevant authorities requesting their assistance. But not one of their letters have been answered.
Not a single authority has done any investigations or even took the time to meet with the committee.
This led to an independent and random health survey to be conducted in May this year. This was done by a group of volunteers in Bukit Koman and its surrounding areas to record the health problems borne by the villagers since 2009.
A total of 383 residents took part in the survey which revealed that 50% of the residents suffer from eye irritation while another 40% of the respondents suffered coughing spells.
Sulphur dioxide and hydrogen cyanide pollutants have already exceeded the permitted limits.
Hue also said that Raub MP Dr Ng Yen Yen has refused to meet the Ban Cyanide committee to discuss their concerns.
“She has made many public statements about the situation, saying that ‘cyanide is harmless and that things shouldn’t be blown out of proportion or made into a political issue.”
“She even said that we shouldn’t be ‘too emotional’. How can we not be emotional when our wives, children, husbands and friends are falling ill left, right and centre?” he asks incredulously.
“When it’s election time, you’ll find all these politicians making promises. But here, no one dares to make any promises.
“Ng tells us not to make this into a political issue, but she is speaking about it like a politician, not from a medical viewpoint – and she is a qualified medical practitioner.
“But I suppose you can’t blame her for that, she is a politician after all,” he added wryly, alluding to the fact that the company’s main shareholder is Andrew Kam whose father, Kam Mun Wah, is a veteran politician in MCA.
Its other shareholders are the Sultan of Pahang’s daughter, Puteri Seri Lela Manja and her ex-husband, Mohd Moiz.
Meanwhile there’s an on-going court case at the Kuala Lumpur High Court challenging the approval of the 10-year-old Environmental Impact Assessment report of the project. A hearing which was initially slated for July 10 has now been postponed to Sept 6.